Tuesday 20 August 2019

Tony Ward: McCaw, Carter and Read are superstars who epitomise the best of competitive sport and the best of New Zealand culture

Getting the basics right as often as possible is key to success of McCaw and Co, whose leadership on and off the field sustains their winning culture

The humility which the All Black stars have shown in celebrating their World Cup victory underlines their team ethos while their desire to share the success with the supporters shows they want everyone in New Zealand to be a part of it
The humility which the All Black stars have shown in celebrating their World Cup victory underlines their team ethos while their desire to share the success with the supporters shows they want everyone in New Zealand to be a part of it
Dan Carter celebrates
Nehe Milner-Skudder rubs noses with fan Kuratiwaka Ngarimu during a welcome home parade for the All Blacks in Auckland
Ma'a Nonu of New Zealand and Charlie Faumuina of New Zealand celebrate in the dressing room with the Webb Ellis Cup
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Like everybody on planet earth outside of South Africa I too basked in the glory of Japan on that memorable September afternoon in Brighton. David slayed Goliath as the biggest ever upset set the tone for the greatest rugby World Cup to date.

Given the nature of Union when compared to football, this was USA beating England in 1950 and North Korea topping Italy in '66 all rolled into one only a much greater achievement than that again. With three wins out of four in their Pool, the hosts of the next World Cup have given the global game a major boost.


It was one of those 'where were you' moments at least in rugby life. And for the record, I was in Cardiff Airport on my way back to Dublin from our Pool opener against the Canadians at the Millennium Stadium that same afternoon. Suffice it to say the place went absolutely berserk as the cheers almost lifted the roof off the airport.

It was as if Ireland had won the World Cup itself given the throngs of green clad supporters present and the hugs and kisses in the moment. Such is the beauty of sport. Even in this ultra professional age there is that air of unpredictability. That sense of possibility irrespective of the odds. We all love the underdog having its day even if, on occasion, it's at the expense of the team we support.

I am no different. Indeed it would be a little rich coming from me were I to suggest anything other, given certain well-recorded happenings in Limerick on a sunny Halloween afternoon some 37 years ago.

So, yes, we all secretly yearn for the big upset. All that said when it came to New Zealand the clear ante-post favourite I drew the line. I wanted the strongest rugby nation, the World Cup holders and forever No 1 in the rankings to win out. In the end they did and I loved every minute of what was for me a classic final.

Let me add that I have nothing whatsoever against Michael Cheika or the Wallabies. Australian rugby is as close as it gets to the Antipodean neighbours or to what French rugby once was and indeed Welsh rugby too in the halcyon days of Gareth, Phil, JPR and the rest back in the seventies.

Yes, they are obsessed with their rugby in New Zealand and to tour there whether as player, journalist or supporter is akin to life in a rugby bubble. It is the Valleys of Wales, the Borders of Scotland, the deepest South of France and Limerick all combined, but by way of a passion and intensity, much greater than the sum of that again.

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Sometimes on tour, whether North Island or South, you have to pause and come up for air. It can be uncomfortable at times but a trip to the land of the 'Long White Cloud' leaves you in no doubt as to what rugby nation is the oval ball equivalent to football for Brazil.

Paul O'Connell drew an appropriate analogy when he compared hurleys left outside mass in Kilkenny with rugby balls alongside pews in New Zealand. Try and imagine 32 Kilkennys merging into two rugby mad islands in the south seas and you've got the drift.

They play the game hard but skilfully, with the emphasis entirely on the latter. They have set a new bar this time by recording back-to-back wins and the first of their three successes to date outside of New Zealand.

Ask me to sum up All Black rugby and I would say that more than anything and better than everybody else, they do the simple things well. Of course, they get the basics right in ensuring primary possession but beyond that, they take chances - measured chances. They off-load in and beyond the tackle and support from depth in numbers, each one expecting the ball to come his way. I don't mean that to sound overly simplistic but I defy anyone to suggest anything different or alien to this well proven modus operandi.

Of course they have the players to do it and for sure the Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Ma'a Nonu generation is a golden one but they will be replaced and the manner in which they go about their business will continue the same.

From the cradle to Twickenham, it's how they learn the game from earliest introduction and how it manifests itself through the various competitions feeding into ITM, Super Rugby and ultimately the All Blacks.

It may have taken a yellow card (right decision by Nigel Owens when red was tempting) to Ben Smith to turn the final into a real contest, but there was one team attempting the constructive rugby and another - while playing to its breakdown strengths - looking to frustrate and hit on the counter. It might have worked but for the sake of rugby, and with respect to all my Aussie friends, I'm glad it didn't.

This World Cup win wasn't just for New Zealand but for the game in general. Despite their incredible success, they are a humble people so well represented by their rugby playing super stars, who see themselves as anything but that.

Note the way that they, to a man, handle themselves in media interviews. Look, too, at the post-match celebrations in the dressing room. Yes they are euphoric, singing and dancing but still TV and radio interviews are taking place minus beer or champagne being poured all over the interviewee whoever he be. That defines a class, a discipline and respect that manifests itself in how they play for themselves and for each other.

On and off the field, they lead the way. McCaw, Carter and Read are superstars who epitomise the best of competitive sport and the best of New Zealand culture. Steve Hansen might not be Mr Bubbly when it comes to dealing with media but listen to what he says, how he says it and then compare him to the Jose Mourinhos of modern-day football.

Rugby Union isn't perfect. There are many challenges facing a global game still evolving professionally. That said the core values of decency and respect for team-mates, match officials and the opposition still prevails. The All Blacks have enhanced their reputation and that of the game at this fantastic World Cup.

I have heard various spins on the Sonny Bill Williams act of giving away his medal and the manner in which he did. A publicity stunt encouraging young fans everywhere to try and do the same? What sad minds come up with these interpretations.

What 'SBW' did with that young boy in those moments after being tackled by security, allied to the iconic picture of him consoling the Springboks' upcoming superstar Jesse Kriel after the semi-final, not to mention setting aside some tickets for Syrian refugees ahead of the final represents a huge man with a huge heart.

A sporting megastar in both rugby codes plus boxing (now there's talent) sending out the most compassionate messages to the watching world.


And still there are cynics having a go. What he did on that lap of honour was spontaneous and generous in the extreme but it was typical All Black, typical New Zealand and, as we've learnt at this world cup, typical 'SBW'.

But I come back to the fundamental point as to how New Zealand rugby plays the game and this coming from one who had practically given up hope after the Ireland/France Six Nations slugfest we won earlier this year.

Yes, they have some big men like Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, and Julian Savea to name but some, but there is also room for an Aaron Smith, for a Dan Carter, a Nehe Milner-Skudder and a compact batleship like Nonu.

The sun has come up and thanks to New Zealand, rugby can remain a game for all shapes and sizes.

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